Monday, February 21, 2011

How to get kids to crab and complain…

One of the toughest things I wrestled with, especially when Eli was younger, was getting him to tell me how he felt about his stuttering. It’s still not the easiest thing in the world, but when he was younger, it was next to impossible. If I was direct with him, he would make it clear he really didn’t want to talk about it. He was too smart to take the bait when I tried indirect methods. What was I doing wrong? Why was this so hard for both of us? Was it because he was a boy and boys just don’t talk about their feelings? It took our cowboy speech therapist guy to point out to me that he WAS expressing his feelings and I was shutting him down!

Turns out I had adopted a "work it out yourselves" approach honed to a tee when my first two boys were born about one minute apart. They were an even match so they didn’t need me as a referee. By the time Eli came along, 4 ½ years later, I had gotten pretty adept at deflecting sibling complaints and whining back to the source. Once Eli was old enough to contribute his own level of irritation to the mix and then flee to Mom for back-up, I stuck with my plan (or habit) of deflection. Most often I would be sitting at my desktop computer, pounding out literary works of art (or playing solitaire) when Eli would come up behind me in tears with something like "Maaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaom, dey woooooooooooon’t le le le le le le le let me plah plah plah play Pooooooooookemon Ma Ma Master Traaaaaainer wif dem!"

My usual response would be "you go work it out with your brothers, dear," or if I was feeling really ambitious I’d bellow out "boys….let Eli play a little, okay?" I’ll admit, I was fortunate that they were all three gentle and kind boys, so disagreements usually resolved themselves quickly and peacefully, without violence or screaming. If not, I would have gotten up and shut the door.

You see, I grew up in a large family back in the days when the parents’ goal was to put a roof over your head, keep you fed and watered, and to watch TV in peace and quiet after long hours at work. Bickering between siblings was not tolerated in the presence of these over-worked, stressed-out adults. While not quite as disengaged and certainly not as overworked, my own parenting style was somewhat influenced by this hands-off approach. Hadn’t it been good for us to buck up?

During one trip to the ranch when I had brought all three boys, Dr. Halvorson brought out a ridiculous horse mask which was an instant hit. The bickering started and I expertly squelched the argument with my honed deflection skills – "if you’re going to argue, we’ll just put it away…" Dr. Halvorson made a mental note and brought this to my attention at our bi-weekly lunch meeting. He explained that if I wanted to hear how Eli felt about his stuttering, I needed to be willing to hear how Eli felt about other things – I needed to let him complain and whine. If he felt safe complaining about his brothers, he would eventually be more likely to feel safe complaining about his struggle with speaking. I still didn’t necessarily need to intervene, but I needed to be a better listener.

I never perceived whining and tattling as golden moments for expression and an opportunity to get a boy to talk about his feelings. And Dr. Halvorson’s advice wasn’t an instant fix. But over the years, Eli has become more comfortable with talking about his struggle, and I’ve become more intentional about taking advantage of those golden moments and becoming a better listener. Keep him complaining and keep it fun…

Doreen Lenz Holte

Monday, February 14, 2011

"Lighten Up Mom"

When Eli was around 12 years old, I asked him if he remembers being told by his therapists that "it was okay to stutter." He said no, he was never told that. He followed up with:

"I stopped talking as much because they said it was wrong."

I know for a fact he had been told "it’s okay to stutter" quite often by all of his therapists. I believe that he doesn’t remember because the real message he was getting through all the focus on changing how he talked far outweighed the thin ribbon of "it’s really okay" woven into his therapy. Most children simply do not have the maturity level to filter, to reason, to get beyond their desires to please adults and to fit in with the world around them.

This may even be harder for children who stutter. There has been much deliberation in the field of stuttering around the theory that people who stutter have higher perfectionistic tendencies than those who do not. Last week I focused on putting Eli "in charge" which followed postings on listening, eye contact, keeping them talking, and shift the focus. This week I’ll focus on making it "okay to mess up."

As I mentioned before, our "therapy" with the maverick cowboy, Dr. Jerry Halvorson, centered around having Eli visit his ranch and do ranch-like stuff. We would occasionally bring lunch with us, usually Subway sandwiches. As we all sat down around the table I would inevitably fall into my mothering role, saying things like "napkin, not your sleeve please," and "pick up that lettuce you’re strewing all over the floor," and "don’t make such a mess," and "put your plate in the garbage" and so on and so on.

One day Dr. Halvorson pulled me aside and said "you’ve got to lighten up Mom!" Now I don’t want to give the wrong impression, as my parenting reputation tends to be pretty laid back, (sometimes even comatose), but I could see his point. I had to let Eli mess things up a bit, had to let him know that it was okay to make a mess with his Subway sandwich, and it was also okay to make a mess of his talking by stuttering.

We are still working on melting away the anxiety that had been layered on with each long trip to speech therapy and each "special time," but I see the sense in beginning with lettuce strewn on the table, letting him use his sleeve as a napkin, and in his enthusiasm for getting out to feed the horses, forgetting to put his plate in the garbage. You’ve got to start somewhere… keep them talking and keep talking fun!

Happy Valentine’s Day to you and yours, and once again, thank you for your interest.

Doreen Lenz Holte

Monday, February 7, 2011

In all of his excitement, he forgot to stutter…

In my past blog posts I have focused on several things we did differently in order to decrease anxiety around Eli’s efforts to speak. These included:

- natural listening and eye contact (stop staring at the kid)
- generating talking by making statements instead of asking questions (stop interrogating the kid)
- focusing on and supporting their interests instead of focusing on their speech tension (promote Pokemon, space aliens, and playing with friends in the sandbox instead of speech tools and fluent speech)

Today I will focus on "putting them in charge."

Dr. Jerry Halvorson, our speech consultant, is big on this one – "Hey Eli, you’re the MAN!" He yells that all the time. Jerry is technically retired and took us on because, well, I’m not really sure except that I think he was a little bored and couldn’t resist a nine-year old kid who stuttered AND loved horses. Eli (who, through the first three years of hanging out several times a month at Jerry’s ranch, had no idea he was a speech therapist) was often "put in charge" around the ranch. He would muck out a horse stall, pick up rocks in the fields, and help load the pick-up with hay bales to take out to the horses in the pasture.

One afternoon I was standing at the sliding glass doors of Jerry’s ranch house after he and Eli had headed out to do chores. As I admired the lovely view, the pick-up truck filled with hay bales came into my field of vision and meandered across the pasture, coasting slowly across the terrain. Jerry was in the back throwing bales of hay off one by one. It took a minute for it to register…but if he was doing that, who was driving?? Yes, it was my nine-year old. Eli thought he was quite something, grinning from ear to ear when he came in the house after chores, yammering his head off about what fun it was to drive a truck. In all of his excitement, he forgot to stutter.

While there are less risky ways you can help your nine-year old experience being "in charge" (although I did grow up on a farm, drove a tractor around that age, and remember feeling like I was quite something!), there are many ways we can integrate take-charge experiences into our children's lives. Other ideas Jerry threw out ranged from having Eli engaging with younger children in a leadership capacity to letting Eli take the lead in planning and cooking a family meal (and being willing to, no matter what, embrace the results with genuine enthusiasm!)

Expecting children to "manage" and "control" their speech only contributes to an increased sense of helplessness, failure, and shame that can permeate their inner world. Putting them in charge and giving them control over many other aspects of their life can go a long ways in countering these feelings and keeping them talking! It may not be as neat and tidy as counting percent of syllable stuttered, but it’s a whole lot more productive, a whole lot more fun, and it will absolutely do no harm!

Thanks so much for your interest!
Doreen Lenz Holte

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

There's nothing harder to let go of than a bad idea...

"The King’s Speech" continues to win awards and to put stuttering on the mass media radar. Anyone who is touched by this issue has to be thrilled that the movie has done so much to increase awareness about a challenge that has been historically met with confusion and uncertainty by both listeners and people who stutter.

Radio hosts who know little about this issue will inevitably ask about what causes stuttering. Those being interviewed, usually a speech therapist, respond with the fact that we really don’t know, but they are quick to state that parents don’t cause stuttering. (Whenever I hear those assurances I have flashes of the time I dropped Buzz Light Year on his head while cleaning his room or the day he took a big swig of my vodka thinking it was water. I am absolved!) But wait a minute – they asked about what causes stuttering, not what makes it worse. While I don’t believe Eli’s stutter had anything to do with Buzz or vodka (or the buzz he might have gotten from the vodka), I do think that as a parent I was and still am greatly empowered to have an impact, negative or positive, on the progression or regression of his stuttering behavior.

Eli once asked, in tears and frustration, "Why does my spa spaaaaaaaaeech haf to be da da da da faaaaaaaaaocus of everything? I wanted so much to fix him, not because I think my children need to be perfect, but because I, as any parent, didn’t want Eli to experience the pain and frustration of having to go through life with this challenge. I vowed to never give up on finding the right resource that would make this all better for him.

Yet with all we were doing, his struggle only intensified. Long drives to weekly speech therapy sessions, daily practice sessions to help him learn speech techniques intended to lessen his struggle, and constant assurances that it was okay to stutter only resulted in a neck-twisting, growling behavior to get a word out and increasing silence. Instead of questioning what we were doing, I assumed, at least for a period of time, that he would have even been worse had we not put forth all this effort.

We are clueless as to what caused Eli to stutter – but we are now not so clueless as to what caused the relentless progression towards silence. All that focus on his speech made him fight harder to not stutter, and only served to increase tension around speaking. We parents can have a tremendous impact on the course of this mysterious affliction – and the sooner we accept that, the sooner we can empower ourselves to impact that course in a positive way.

It’s not easy to accept the idea that the resources we accessed may have actually done more harm than good. But we learn and we grow, and since that’s exactly what we want for our children, this is an opportunity to be wonderful role model. Not sure who said this, but I have it posted on the wall in my office – "There’s nothing harder to let go of than a bad idea." It takes courage to change directions and choose a different path. For the sake of kids who stutter, we all need to find that courage and find a better way. Next week I will share more of the changes we made that helped Eli to let go of his fear and lessen his struggle to speak. Until then – thanks for listening!

Doreen Lenz Holte